Ideas & Stories Part 5 – The Lincoln Postulate

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The Gettysburg Address is a convenient length for memorization, but the designers of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC made the remarkable choice to include a portion of a yet more insightful address made by Lincoln: I refer to his second Inagural. It is doubtful whether all the tomes laboriously compiled by the efforts of scholarship have significantly added to Lincoln’s recognition of the causes of the Civil War; and oversimplifying, where Lincoln recognized complexity and competing motives, and was unwilling to allege pure villainy, seems to me to actively harm our own comprehension of faults and causes – and effects.

I quote here a selection from Lincoln’s most profound and moral judgment offered in the speech: “If we shall suppose that American slavery is [an] offence… which… [God] now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war… shall we discern therein any departure from those attributes which the believer in a living God always ascribe to Him? … [I]f God wills that [the war] continue, until all the walth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword… so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”

It may easily be argued that forced labor for another is not always unjust. How else, for instance, is a poor thief to pay back what he owes for what he stole, than to see at least some part of the wages of his work given to his victim? (Assuming he has work, the ensuring of which and what to do if not is not the point here.) But for America to have proclaimed freedom and liberty for all men, and then to keep some in life-long slavery, is easily recognized as a violation of the most basic principle of honor, which is honesty. The Founding Fathers recognized this, but shied away from carrying through their principles in fear of civil unrest and for their own fortunes, even though American independence did see some measures taken in the succeeding years to reduce and remove slavery in several states independently.

But the overall offence remained. It is noteworthy that Lincoln sees the joint responsibility “both North and South” – where Southern apologists wish to downplay any role played by slavery (in contrast to the writings of the times) and many today wish to justify themselves by only villifying those they can cast conveniently as the “slaveholders and rebels”.

In God’s providence, the Civil War ended mere months after Lincoln’s speech; but we can hardly have been said to have heeded Lincoln’s warning. Measures imposed on the southern states were motivated as much by revenge as concern for the freed slaves; and removed purely in political manuevering with no concern for – with wilfull ignorance or at times even approval of – the resulting treatment of black citizens.

Although black slavery and anti-black racism have dominated American political crises for some time, at no point do I see a concerted effort to put race aside, treat the victimized as citizens, and assess what may actually be due in restitution or, as we say, “damages”. Perhaps the closest was the effort immediately after the Civil War to settle former slaves in ownership of land confiscated from the southern grandees or otherwise available; but land policy has hardly been a bright point in American political management.

Speaking of land, much of the sovereignty over what the United States now governs was taken by force, often in violation of treaty or a succession of treaties, from other American nations. Which is known if ignored, but I mention it to make the point that there are many other “offences” which Americans might be held accountable for – often, as with slavery, excused on specious racial grounds. We might consider this particular set of violations offences against the right of property, essential to our understanding of freedom, and even – though as best I can tell, apocryphally – sometimes alleged as the original word replaced later by “happiness” in the Declaration.

More recently, various manias for sterilization, euthanasia, and, most publicly, abortion have placed us in defiance of the right we declare to life for “all men”. If we alarmed by civil unrest and public obscenity, we can hardly do other than say, with Lincoln, that we have gotten more than was coming to us, and the degree of the consequences is in God’s hands at this point.

The great need today is not new programs, new services, greater central organization, and so on, which are generally most popular today on all sides. We are in need of repentance, reform, and restitution, in consonance with principles and laws already known: incidentally also of restitution of our self-government to ourselves. It can hardly be argued that the modern American populace displays much self-control; but the opportunities were largely removed with the bloat of existing schools and roads and townships and congressional districts and bureaucracies and regulations and corporations to encompass larger and larger populations, instead of replicating the local organizations necessary to meaningful self-government.

Only repentance can be urged – even though we may yet find, with the later kings of Judah, that the corporate guilt built up is overwhelming and “all our boasted pomp of yesterday is one with Ninevah and Tyre”.

President Trump, Part 1: The Democrats’ Failure

No observer of President Trump’s habits and character could be surprised to find him the chief architect of his own political undoing in 2020. More perplexing to most observers would the question how he came to be in a position where he was virtually the only person who could have gotten in his own way. Admittedly it is not necessarily accepted that he was in such a position: but I believe such a case can be made, at least about Trump’s position after surviving the first impeachment against him.

The role of the Republican party in strengthening Trump’s position is obvious and not particularly interesting, as it mostly consisted of doing nothing and letting Trump “lead”. In fact the failure of a Republican-controlled Congress for two years – with the Senate majority maintained longer – to do anything of consequence at all is in my opinion a greater practical failure than virtual anything President Trump did or did not do.

By it is also the case that the Democratic party played a role in strengthening Trump’s hand. The strategic errors made in the 2016 election have been much discussed: primarily the appearance that was created of gaming the party process to ensure Clinton won the nomination, and then the Clinton campaign’s decision to, if not outright ignore, at least not take seriously certain surprise battleground states. Trump’s base of support as a candidate was surprising, but intelligent practice of politics must account for the situation that obtains.

The role of the Democratic platform is difficult to criticize directly, as the casual observer can hardly sort intentional party strategy from media coverage largely favorable to its main tenets. The image of the party, due to those twin influences, however, is calculated to create resentment, because it appears to emphasize social disruption and casting blame – legitimate media roles where social faults exist – over actually addressing problems, which a political party must at least pretend to do.

When that agenda majors on abortion, encouragement of sexual perversion, and vocal if admittedly not much practiced calls for stifling regulation of business – all while letting the major corporations that provide platforms for online discourse roam unsupervised – the more traditional America is horrified. A vague worship of northern Europe’s successful form of democratic socialism that would have no legal ground in the United States’ Constitution without significant amendments – on top of a century of vaguely socialistic programs enacted in defiance of said document and combined with a wilful ignorance of, or failure to repudiate, socialism’s and communism’s disaster stories and fanatical excesses – is hardly better. American history, in contrast, appears to be mentioned by Democrats only in the negative – the occasional appeals to vilify Republican actions as unworthy of the Constitution they generally so blithely ignore is calculated to create no reaction but bitter laughter.

The Democratic-friendly media attempt to make a slogan out of “resist”, unaware that overall media political leanings make the Democrats appear nearly ascendant even when they are out of power, was mostly just funny – especially when their choice not to deal really was a choice. President Trump’s agenda was not entirely in line with recent Republican posturing; support, compromise, would have been rewarded had a few Democrats crossed the line. I don’t say President Trump did any better in making his attempts to deal attractive to Democrats than the Democrats have done making their party attractive to Trump’s supporters. But if the mafia don’s deal is refused, nothing is left but, to save face, humiliating the opposition: and it was quickly apparent Democrats would major on opposition to President Trump far more than they would contest any issue on its merits: a sort of negative of the Republican party’s failure.

All of this could be excused. All of this could even, ignoring my own views, be considered a moral stand of sorts. What is most difficult to explain is the ineptness of the Democratic opposition. To highlight that ineptness, consider the impeachments against Trump.

Yes, impeachments, because President Trump was eventually impeached, twice. He was not convicted the first time, and I have significant doubts whether enough senators will prove comfortable with the idea of convicting a person no longer in office for it to happen on the second try. But what were the charges? Well, first of all, here are some of the things Trump was not impeached for:

  • President Trump was not impeached for attempting to create a “Space Force” on his own initiative – which reportedly got the Pentagon to start drafting plans for such a thing. The organization of the military is the responsibility of Congress: this could easily be construed as a usurpation. Perhaps most people were thought unlikely to care, and articles of impeachment would have been thought too transparently motivated; but then, the eventual impeachment hardly scores better on those criteria. It is not entirely clear to me whether Congress eventually giving the thing some sort of formal backing makes the situation better or worse.
  • President Trump was not impeached for abusing a national emergency order to access military funds which were reappropriated to build his pet border wall. There is little doubt that the handling of immigration at the southern border could be considered an emergency, even if President Biden has decided to retract the order rather than take advantage of it to promulgate his own solutions, and even if a swath of judges seemed at times more interested in rulings that would create problems and frustrate Trump than they did in meeting demands of either law or justice, not that President Trump seemed to care that much about the conditions suffered by those enduring his emergency either. The emergency may have been legitimate: the transparent abuse of process, hardly. But then, securing conviction seems impossible: Trump’s defense would certainly – if he could have kept his temper – have been that he was pursuing the means he thought best to address the situation, and a precedent of impeachment for bad judgment seems like it would find little favor.
  • President Trump was not impeached for pardoning convicted and alleged war criminals. This received about two days’ worth of media attention, is indefensible, and is certainly an abuse of authority. But perhaps it broke no laws – beyond making a joke of the military’s own due process, which could hardly endear him to anyone who takes our military virtue seriously – and the case would be too hard to argue.

It’s entirely possible there are other instances I missed, but any of these seems at least of worthy of condemination than what actually happened. The articles of impeachment that were eventually brought against Trump a little over a year ago had, nominally, to do with attempting to pressure a foreign power to investigate a connection of a political opponent; which is disreputable, but – and here is what the Democrats missed – “everybody knows” politics is a load of dirty money and dirty laundry. If there was a misdeed less likely to turn opinion against Trump, I can’t think of it – especially when circumstantial evidence suggests Hunter Biden’s connections wouldn’t stand scrutiny themselves, the Democrat-led process was hardly squeaky-clean, and Trump’s threat to withhold aid was never followed through on.

Now, had President Trump made enough enemies in the Senate that conviction could be secured, the case would have been a good one for the Democrats to pursue: the conviction would publicly throw the “swamp” back in Trump’s face, implicitly secure Biden’s reputation from public derrogation, and, of course, remove President Trump from office. But the combination of Republican stonewalling and Democratic attacks – sometimes verging on slander – had made that impracticable. It’s not that Trump seems likely to actually have been innocent, mind: merely that the case was neither chosen nor handled in such a manner as to create certainty of guilt and stain senators irrevocably should they demur from conviction.

The second impeachment is in some ways more appalling still. President Trump certainly ought to have been impeached after the election, when he was discovered, on a recorded phone call, soliciting for a fraudulent election count. He was even recorded giving a specific number of votes to be found! After all the hyperbolic warnings about possible fraud by others, the public relations gain the Democrats could have made by parading this hypocrisy around dwarfs anything they might have gotten from success last year and a one-year Pence presidency. What, after all, could the Senate say in defence? And what could the Republicans in the Senate do the stonewall on a charge that obvious? And, reputation after standing behind Trump for four years and then having to convict being what it would be, how likely is it the GOP would stand up to really resist any but the most far-fetched Democratic proposals, for quite a while at least?

Instead, the second impeachment depended on taking the most negative view of a couple tweets. A precedent that implies politicians should refrain from encouraging protests of perceived injustice, or that implies politicians who do so will be held personally accountable for any rioting that ensues, is chilling – and would condemn a huge number of politicians over the unrest last year, if the principle were carried out consistently.

It is also telling that the reaction to President Trump’s alleged encouragement of insurrection was first to threaten, not impeachment, but instead abuse of a constitutional amendment meant to provide for conduct of the presidency’s business in case of illness. This impeachment was the results of Democrats being unable to bully others into doing Congress’s work for them. The impeachment process certainly takes longer, but it suggests an agenda more interested in trying to implicate Vice-President Pence in removing President Trump – and thus get Pence out of favor with Trump’s base – than one interested in seeing the law followed or justice done.

The Democrats agenda, while at least openly proclaimed, is not carryingly popular. This calls for a scrupulous honesty to win further support and deflect criticism, or successful villification of opponents: but they failed to put a dent in President Trump’s support by attacking him directly, because their motivations appeared to be those of resentment rather than principle; and their methods seem as venal as his.

In a country plagued by non-participation in elections, Democratic efforts did eventually create enough interest to remove Trump from office by election; but it can hardly be said that the number of those willing to support Trump was diminished in any way. Of the support that did fall away, much of it was surely motivated by Republican inaction, as sketched above – and by Trump’s own failures of character and control, which I will discuss in part two.

The Seat of the Pharisees

From within the American tradition, perhaps the strangest of Jesus’ teachings is found in passing in the final discourse recorded in the Gospel of Matthew before Jesus would go up to Jerusalem for the last time: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you”. (Matthew 23:2,3a ESV)

This text is remarkable because the Pharisees are known best to us from the gospels as the hypocritical opponents of Jesus.  Even here Matthew’s record immediately passes back to further warnings against the Pharisees – “but [do] not [do] the works they do.” (Matt. 23:3b)  The rest of the chapter is taken up with various warnings against those works, and condemnation of the Pharisees for corrupting the Law of Moses.

This is surprising as well because Jesus had often invoked His superior authority as the Christ to correct Pharisaic teaching or justify His deviation from their illegitimate standards.  Further, this instruction is recorded as happening shortly before the Resurrection and Ascension, briefly after which the Church would be declared free of the Mosaic regulations.  Still, that could be explained: Jesus reminding His disciples to maintain deference to a legitimate authority until its rule passed away.  We are, after all, not ourselves the Christ.

I still find it difficult to face, because Christ here commands obedience to authorities who immediately are identified as evil.  Duty to authorities is hardly an uncommon theme in Scripture.  But the difficulties are not always framed so starkly.  Where David respects the kingship of Saul, he is still a fugitive and we know from long familiarity David’s story ends, as we judge these things, happily.  Christ and the Apostles teach respect for all authority, but usually somewhat separated from condemnations of that authority or even warnings of suffering inflicted by evil rulers.  Here we have the immediate contrast, which leaves no doubt about the Christian principle of submission to authority.

There is one clearly Scriptural remedy against rulers who abuse their authority: flight.  From the Exodus to David’s adventures mentioned above to Elijah’s sojurn in Phoenicia to Mary and Joseph’s flight back to Egypt, and then in Jesus’ instructions to flee the seige of Jerusalem, Peter’s supernaturally-aided escape from prison, and various escapades of Paul, running away from evil is always seen as legitimate.  (Almost always: Jeremiah records a prophetic warning not to flee from – or fight – the conquering Babylonians but rather surrender.)

In contrast, the favored American arguments, of throwing up law and legitimacy against usurping acts of the authorities, stands Scripturally on shakier ground.  In Biblical terms, the authority of a position seems to be personal and to come from having been put in a position of authority.  The odd rebellion is instigated at divine command, but the framing is that God is judging the ruler.  Allowing for a nation to have formally endorsed a rule “by the people”, it would seem that their representatives would still retain even abused authority until removed.

However, it is also the case that what the Reformed often call lesser magistrates are not bound to enforce unjust or unlawful commands from superiors.  Jonathan defended David against Saul; Ahab’s minister Obadiah protected the prophets; Agrippa would have freed Paul except for Paul’s own appeal to Caesar’s court itself.  In more modern terms, we might recognize this as the principle which has declared “just following orders” an insufficient excuse for immoral conduct.

In many areas there is growing concern about abuse of authority, and thus how we are to respond.  We may find ourselves faced with a necessity to refuse unjust requirements – and then to flee or accept unjust retribution, which is persecution for righteousness’ sake that Christ says is a sign of promised blessing.  But the elements outlined above suggest active resistance – in contrast to this non-violent witness – is not the role of the private citizen acting on his own.  It is of course possible for subordinate authorities to fail to act; it is possible for subordinate authorities to resist improperly what are in fact just commands.  But I conclude that to identify legitimate resistance to tyranny, the Christian should look for movements being led by or at the very least cooperating with those other authorities which are given for our good in this world.

Police, Anecdotally

With regard to the recent killings of Americans by American police, and subsequent protests, two rhetorical positions are being taken which are essentially incoherent.  There is one attitude which talks of revolution and issues often obscene threats against the police – and then assumes that in every physically violent confrontation between protestors and police, the police are at fault.  The idea of a hostile mob which can be restrained to only react to its targets is laughable.

But at least that stance has a certain thoughtless consistency.  More baffling is the assumption of those who purport to care about law and order, but are unwilling to entertain the idea that the police are ever at fault.  In the American civil tradition, built originally on a distrust of the powerful, this is baffling in a way it might not be if rulers and administrators were assumed to stand outside or above the law.  An unshakeable assumption of police – or other official – innocence is in fact to slide back towards that frame of mind, where the appearance of stability is valued over justice.

An acquaintance suggested the other day that it would be possible to identify which jurisdictions still police properly and which have fallen into a security mentality by noting where the bright blue associated with the police is still worn, and where departments have adopted other or darker colors.  The idea appears plausible: good police should want their role to be clear, and that is a positive role: as Chesterton, while well aware of abuses, noted, the linguistic roots of “police” and “polite” are the same.  I have of course no idea how one could substantiate this supposal, and would further assume that a study would find many exceptions even should it prove a general rule.

What I do have ideas about are things that have happened to me.  Outside the city – and often inside – I suspect the majority of public encounters with police have to do with traffic; especially as it’s rather rare (and I have been told in some jurisdictions intentionally avoided or even proscribed) for police officers to be out on the public streets without a report of crime.  Apart from the occasional time I’ve been in the vicinity of other police activity, this has certainly been true for me.  I’ve picked up my share of speeding tickets, properly given all but in passing and duly paid, but the following are all experiences I have had:

  • I was pulled over for running a red light.  The officer said, likely because I had no other record, that if I reported to pay the fine on the indicated day, he would rewrite the ticket for a lesser offence with a lower fine and no record.  This happened.
  • I received a ticket, well away from home, for speeding on a highway.  Several months later, I received a refund, with the code used for tickets issued in error.  The ticket had not been either an error or unfair; there did, however, appear to be a sherrif up for re-election in the county the ticket was issued in.
  • A significant time after I had moved into an apartment, residents began receiving tickets for parking on a nearby bridge, which had not been posted as a no parking zone.  According to city ordinances, that bridge was in fact in a class which was not supposed to be free for parking: but after a couple months, I assume their were complaints – I myself noted the inconsistency and lack of a sign when I paid the fine – and tickets were no longer issued and people began parking on the bridge again.
  • A left hand turn lane was blocked by police apparently assisting at an accident: I needed to turn left and following other traffic turned left from the next lane over.  The second car of the two at the first incident pulled me over.  The officer asked if I had been drinking, which I had earlier, and naturally the officer performed a few sobriety tests, including eventually asking me to blow through a breathalyzer.  At this point he implied I would be arrested if I refused, and refused to tell me what would happen, either way, after the test.  I passed, and he again implied he would have preferred to arrest me but was now constrained by the result.  I did receive a warning for the left turn – which noted my race as Hispanic, which by my appearance seems an unusual assumption which even the dim lighting of the fast food restaurant parking lot doesn’t quite seem to justify.
  • I received a ticket for parking in a bus lane, which I had done.  The amount of the ticket was significantly higher than prescribed by city ordinance.  On consulting with more knowledgeable persons including a local police officer I knew, I was told if I contested the ticket what was most likely was that I would end up paying the ticket, that it was unlikely to be reduced and even if it was I would still pay the (relatively nominal) court costs in addition; or, if the issuing officer happened to be unavailable, it would be thrown out completely because it would be too much of a hassle to sort it out at another date.  In the end I paid the ticket as given.

There’s a theme that runs through these incidents: control, especially of information.  I value information, and I’m relatively good at finding it: in most cases I was able to look up the relevant statutes fairly easily.  But of course that doesn’t apply in the moment, and we see that even if we set the use of force aside, ignorance is a weakness against even a claim of information.

I’m willing to look at any single incident and find excuses that could provide re-interpretation of events.  A cop trying to give a kid a break; a new guy on the job trying to do the job; and so forth.  But I suspect there are a lot of people with similar stories, if they were told.  It’s not like I’ve been particularly inconvenienced by any of the results.  I’m unlikely to be considered a threat, by normal stereotypes, so at any of these times the money really was the only likely cost.   And the money from fines I probably would have spent on books or games or other recreation – and I already have the money to spend on more books than I have shelves for.  But put these same incidents in the lives of a class liable to be considered a risk, or for whom fines represent more than a couple hours’ work, and we are talking about very different conseqences.

After one of the previous police killings in recent years, during following protesting, my pastor at the time – for those to whom it’s significant, a black pastor of a multiracial congregation – made a point of saying in church on Sunday that there were undoubtedly corrupt policmen, flawed practices, and irresponsible departments, but respect was still demanded: that the police did still go out and stand in the way of actual trouble-makers, and that if all the police were to simply quit or refuse to do their jobs, the eruption of violence and trouble would remind us right away why we have police to begin with.  And that’s merely omission of a current good: really clearing away the institutions we have would be far worse.

Revolution is a far messier business than protestors mostly remember to begin with.  However, while I doubt that Jefferson’s description of the formation of governments in the opening of the Declaration of Independence should be taken as prescriptive, but historically it certainly seems descriptive.  Eventually, abuses not corrected lead to revolution: the task is to correct them.

Some Thoughts about Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire is perhaps the best film which has been made about an athletic feat.  It twines together – with extensive substitution of the dramatic scene for already remarkable fact – the stories of Eric Liddell’s and Harold Abrahams’ preparation for the Paris Olympic games of 1924.  The Olympics merely provide the stage.  The true subjects of the film are faith and inclusion.  Liddell famously refused for conscience’ sake to run his best event due to a heat scheduled on a Sunday; Abrahams saw himself – here the film may understate the matter – as bound to show he could be fully both Jewish and a loyal Englishman.

I first saw the film as a child and have rewatched it several times over the years: it remains a favorite.  As a child, it was easy enough to understand the themes and classify the characters.  Liddell and Abrahams are clearly the protagonists of the story.  Their friends and teammates play roles of positive support.

However, the films strikingly different moral themes provokes asymmetric sympathies in quantity and type.  The British and Olympic bureaucracy are, if not quite villains, at least antagonists for Liddell.  The supremacy of the conscience in morality I had been taught already.  I would suppose I would not yet have known the formal phrasing of the Reformed dictum, “Christ alone is Lord of the conscience,” but the principle was already fixed, as well as the fact that Christ had warned us quite clearly that those who follow Him will face opposition which should be counted as an honor.  Liddell’s heroism was therefore clear and his vindication obvious and justified.

In contrast, the masters of Caius appear to wish to repress Abrahams but take no overt action: on a surface viewing Abrahams has no clear opposition beyond his own frustrations.  He was therefore a much less compelling character to my younger mind.  I had not yet been led to consider the question of inclusion as unsettled.  In fact I doubt the racial animosities Abrahams faces would have been portrayed in the same way had the issue appeared as unsettled politically as it does today.  Abrahams’ friend makes a thoughtless joke based on a stereotype and remains a friend; an unknowing order of pork (on a first date, as we would say today) is treated as a colossal joke; the masters of Caius may attribute Abrahams’ intransigence to his Jewish race but the legitimacy of their positions is not called into question as a result.  Abrahams desires to prove his loyalty despite being mistreated; the legitimacy, even the requirement, of that loyalty is not up for discussion.

On a more mature viewing, subtleties emerge.  The friend and the girl make the mistakes, but they realize them immediately.  The masters of Caius make their assumptions in oblivious self-righteousness and not to Abrahams’ face.  Worse, after attempting to force Abrahams away from his chosen methods, they comfortably assume the glory of his medal, assuring themselves that they foresaw the victory.  On a naive viewing, this seemed a kind of victory for Abrahams; to a more experienced eye, the hypocrisy stands out.  It is all too easy to imagine their reactions had Abrahams failed at the Olympics.  Worse, Abrahams’ Arab-Italian coach is found excluded from the Olympic stands, apparently even as a spectator: again the naive viewing can see this as a result of the professionalism question, but the mature eye is forced to consider the possibility of racism when Mussabini’s ancestry was so pointedly highlighted earlier.

Chariots of Fire opens and closes not with Liddell or in balance but in reflection on Abrahams.  The film’s creator David Puttnam – who produced this film which had a sort of direction by committee of its stars – had a Jewish mother himself and it is not hard to see his sympathies lying more particularly with Harold Abrahams.  In fact it seems almost miraculous that the difficulties of Liddell’s conscientiousness towards his ministry and strict keeping of the Lord’s Day are portrayed as well as they are – or then again, perhaps not, as one understood difficulty of loyalties might easily inform one’s understanding of another, per Terence’s declaration of human unity.

But a hint of a question remains about Abrahams.  He desires to prove he belongs by succeeding.  He succeeded, and found a kind of belonging.  But there is a reading of subtext, I think, which suggests that to Puttnam his understanding was, if not wrong, incomplete.  Mussabini follows the same logic, but it buys him no acceptance.  The masters of Caius follow the same logic, but they are not shown to be trustworthy.  Sibyl appeals to a form of the argument, but markedly does not fully accept or understand it.  Her truer appreciation of Abrahams’ own worth is shown by her comprehension and advocacy for the love of a good thing.  There is no real virtue in accepting only that which has already proved the benefits to one’s own self or society.  It is quite clear to the audience that Abrahams would in every sense be a true Englishman and credit to his country had he failed even to make the Olympic team: it is sincerely to be doubted whether we have all learned that lesson as comprehensively as we should have.

We Are the Threat to the Second Amendment

The American War for Independence was fought, and the Constitution of the United States of America subsequently constructed, so that Americans could live in a free society.  The particular connotation of “freedom” paramount in importance was that of self-government.  The British crown and parliament were seen to interfere with the ordering of American colonies by themselves: the crown and parliament were thrown off.  What then proved to be an interim measure, the Articles of Confederation, was homegrown but the resulting government was ineffectual and even bad: the Articles were superseded.  The Constitution as it took effect in 1789 provided a much more effective structure for the central government of the United States: but as government is entrusted with maintaining by compulsion those things thought necessary in society – or at least by the governors of society – a more effective government is also a greater threat to individual and social liberties.

Thus, with ratification beginning in 1791, several Amendments – the Bill of Rights – were quickly added into the structure of the new government.  From the standpoint of modern practice, these protect freedoms ranging from our most prized (such as speech and religion) to the apparently quaint (not quartering troops) to the generally ignored (authority of individual states and the people).  Today, while the exact limits of the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment – speech, religion, assembly – are hotly debated, the most controversial item in the Bill of Rights is the Second Amendment:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be abridged.”

The security of any State is threatened by foreign encroachment; but that of a free State is also threatened by its own government, should that government turn tyrannical.  This latter was certainly that consideration by those drafting this amendment.  The Constitution already provided for armed forces.  The rest of the Bill of Rights asserts rights against government: why would this be different?  The Founders had just fought a war against a government they considered tyrannical.

At the time and in context, militia were lightly trained and loosely organized citizens with ordinary or perhaps slightly outdated infantry weapons.  The Second Amendment thus speaks directly to the legitimacy – even necessity – of a “civilian military”, under regulation.  The weapons in view for the citizenry to possess – the Militia Acts of 1792 required citizens to provide themselves with these arms – were recognizably those used in war.

It is worth noting that the Second Amendment has nothing to say about what individual states in the Union might require or disallow with regards to arms (except as superseded by national militia regulations).  However, the authority of states in this question would seem to have later been strictly curtailed by the Fourteenth Amendment, although I do not know whether this reasoning following the letter of the Constitution is routinely followed itself in court cases.

Militia service was assumed to be a duty for citizens.  The Militia Acts prescribed militia service for all white male citizens in the United States, subject to requirements established in the various states.  This reflects the common practice of probably a majority of nations throughout history, free or not.  It is still common practice throughout the world to require some degree of military service.  It is, however, not true of practice in the United States today.  How we got here is understandable: reluctance after the Civil War to give the Southern states opportunity for further disruptions, followed by the nationalism and centralization of the early Progressives; two World Wars and various ensuing conflicts would put the country’s military in mind to keep skill in the field at its fighting peak, a task for professionals, rather than amateur citizens.  But there is something a little odd about the occasional claim that the current doctrine of an “All Volunteer Force” is somehow specially “American”.

I take it for granted that some discipline in habits is necessary in a populace to maintain a continuing society.  That discipline can either be imposed from outside or maintained from inside: tyranny or at least autocracy on the one hand; self-control and self-government on the other.  As a society we do not value – in fact we tend to resent – admonitions to curb our desires.  We do so increasingly poorly, and are largely inclined to make jokes about our failures rather than consider them seriously.  In this light, the decline of – the lack of requirement of – militia service is an indication of a people not significantly concerned with remaining free.

In light of current outrages some call for further arming, that everybody should be ready to defend themselves: but a free man should not have to go armed in a free place.  The absolute horror of weapons themselves occasioned by these massacres is not significantly more palatable as an alternative, because by implication it is to admit we have surrendered our freedom.  Between the desire to feel in control of one’s own safety, the emotional and symbolic implications of surrendering the instrument of that control, and the actual fact of a government that spawns ever more intrusive regulations and agencies – the threat the Second Amendment actually had in mind – it is quite easy to understand the desire to see the right to bear arms remain unabridged.

It is mainly either free or lawless societies that have been armed societies: the former to mark and protect their freedom; the latter out of necessity and terror.  The Constitution of the United States was written for a people who – whatever their failures in actually carrying out these principles – wanted to live freely.  Its provisions are probably not safe for a populace which does not wish to exercise self-control.  But – here is the trouble – are we ready to admit that we are in fact not exactly a free people, or do not wish to be?  If so, are we content with that, or will we make actual reforms?

If society as a whole reflects an inability of individuals to govern their own conduct safely, the society is not free: even those individuals who might control themselves will be restricted, out of necessities that affect the whole.  I firmly believe no other nation has yet had the ideals of liberty imagined, or even achieved though admittedly only in part, so well as we have in the United States.  But it is possible for a nation’s maturity to regress.  Are we still free?  Can we prove it?  Or will Uncle Sam have to come take the scissors away from a nation of squabbling toddlers mad about who got invited to the party?

Immigration Principles and Consequences

It is widely accepted in the modern world that an independent nation has the authority to control who may enter its borders.  As long as this principle is accepted, persons entering a country will be subject to some kind of confirmation or examination; and as long as that is true, the potential exists for whatever system is put in place to conduct those examinations to become overloaded.  The result is delay, and in order to maintain the orderly entry, some kind of living arrangements for the people waiting to enter (or not) must be maintained.

This possible situation is being played out in reality in the United States along our southern border with Mexico.  The situation further is not quite captured by this neutral language, as there are both widespread failures and evils due to enforcement of policies not appropriate to the overloaded situation – possibly not appropriate at all – and scattered but mainly reliable reports of intentional abuses.

Quite recently the concern over the living conditions provided, together with these reports of abuses, has led some to term the detention centers “concentration camps”.  In a technical sense, the term is accurate, but it has been mainly used to invoke the horde of negative connotations the term has acquired in the popular mind by its association with Nazi Germany.  Those connotations are unfortunate because they imply an intentional evil where the situation we are dealing with is, primarily, accidental.  Certainly some of the abusers may feel enabled by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and feelings of President Trump, other politicians, or their own supervisors: but the institutional problems would exist in the most welcoming possible society, as long as it as accepted that entry to a country may justly be controlled.  Further, if the general principle that entry to a country should be monitored is correct, it is logically possible that in a given country as a given time, a limiting stance on immigration is reasonable.

Solutions to these immediate problems would take one of three forms:

The orthodox approach would be to increase the resources – monetary, personal, legal – devoted to monitoring and controlling immigration at the crisis points.  President Trump’s border wall would fit this category (except that it is not something that can be completed quickly) as would his administration’s deployment of National Guard troops to the border (although it is not clear that this helps directly with the processing of paperwork and so forth that is the real slowing factor).  A more direct solution would be to hire more Customs & Border Patrol personnel, on at least a temporary basis.  Other steps would include reviewing policies in place and either temporarily suspending normally sound policy which is inadequate to the situation, or replacing policy if it is found fundamentally lacking.

An alternative approach would be to re-evaluate the basic principle.  Especially in a world where modernist ideas of democracy ideas are generally accepted – which is to say, the people pre-exist their governments – it is not clear on what grounds a government should be able to stop a person’s travels.  The first cause that comes to mind would be self-defense: in other words, the apprehension of criminals, a check on medical conditions, or possibly the confiscation of weapons.  And these, almost certainly, will take some time: in the United States, even domestic background checks can take several days.  Another potential issue is identifying who exactly – after entry – is a citizen or “really” part of a nation, and who is either passing through or merely resident.  So although it is attractive to think we could see entirely free human movement, as long as there are regionally distinct authorities, this is unlikely as even the most minimal and common-sense limits and restrictions produce the same problem as the endorsement of national borders as a principle produces: a time in which travelers or immigrants must wait for authorized entry.

A final possibility – which has been actually advocated for at times by the Democratic party, and was for years the de facto policy for immigrants who had previously entered in an unauthorized fashion – is to maintain all the formal principles as valid, while simply not enforcing them when it is inconvenient or difficult to do so.  This is the easiest at any given moment, but is simply procrastination and thus is not really a solution.

I am in favor of the first procedure: specifically in this case an increase in personnel and other resources dedicated to managing this crisis.  Because I believe freedom of human movement is a worthwhile ideal, even if (as outlined above) it cannot be fully met in a fallen world, I would hope this would be combined with a re-evaluation and liberalization of the formal requirements for immigration, as well.

From Beer Hall to Park

The riot in Charlottesville this past weekend can readily be recognized as an action straight out of Hitler’s SA playbook: stage a disturbance, and blame the Communists.  The “Communists” in this case are headlined by “Antifa”, a loose collection of anarchists, actual Communists, and various other radical and not-so-radical Leftists who proclaim themselves “anti-fascist”.  The rise of National Socialism to power (in the person of Adolf Hitler) has popularly been put down to any number of uncommonly harsh conditions in Germany: the unrealistic Treaty of Versailles, the Great Depression, the ineffective Weimar government – and so on.  But these explanations rooted in political or economic circumstances overlook the emotional factor: the root of this tactic is that people who would not – one assumes – ordinarily have sympathized with the Nazis were inclined to give them some credence due to their stated opposition to other groups.  It’s a standard enough political tactic, and it does not inherently have to lead to or give cover to violence.  But it can do that too, and the number of people who fell for it this past week is worrying.  Fool us twice, shame on us.

But why did it work?  It worked because there was another group present to blame.  Political scapegoats can certainly be manufactured or exaggerated easily enough, but it is easier to pull the stunt off if some person or group is already there, asking for the label.  The United States’ political scene is increasingly publicly interpreted in terms of Right and Left – which is odd, as actual variety of political views seems in my experience to be increasing.  To those who know they are considered “the Right” it seems that “the Left” has failed to take responsibility for the riots, violence, and vandalism resulting from its own protests.  Though the vast majority of “the Right” would prefer to distance themselves from neo-Nazis, white supremacy, and the like, there are twin fears which result in mere mumbling of platitudes.  The first fear stems from the – sometimes legitimate – assumption that many on “the Left” already see everyone on “the Right” as essentially Nazis-in-waiting: if the “rightist” condemns the white supremacist now, who will he be pressured to condemn next time?  The second is negative: if condemnation of the white supremacists is issued, but their also-violent opponents are ignored, how is the “rightist” supposed to convince his fellows he’s not really a “leftist”?  (The “Leftist”, of course, faces the opposite social pressure: if he admits a “leftist” protest got out of hand, how can he demonstrate he’s not really a “rightist” condoning unjust police violence and systemic oppression of women and minorities?)

We should recognize this kind of fear for what it is.  This is political thinking.  In a political party, I may not be expected to sing the copious praises of the candidate from the next town over at all times, but I am expected to show up at his rally and politely call him a “good American” and parrot whatever the catchphrase of this year’s campaign may be.  What we see, in short, is that violence is being politicized, with neither “the Right” nor “the Left” willing to criticize the vandals with whom they know they are grouped.

It would be as well to distinguish two sorts of civil disturbance.  (There may be others.)  The first – as in Ferguson or Baltimore – helps nobody, but there is a clear cause of perceived governmental injustice.  The second – as this January in Washington at the Inauguration or this weekend in Charlottesville – is about the advancement of a political agenda, simply and solely, by show of force, whether that force remains a demonstration of numerical strength or spills over into actual violence.  The first we should have some sympathy with (even if the crowd’s assumptions are not totally justified), though we can hardly condone the acts and may disagree about the facts.  C. S. Lewis notes for us that, “Hard words sound less unlovely from the hunted than from the hunter,” and I take the same to be true of deeds.  But the second is more complicated: legitimate and secured by law when peaceful; when violent, simply criminal.  The transition is often hard to identify.

If I have digressed this far, in many ways equating the habits of “Left” and “Right”, it should not be taken to obscure the point I began with.  I undertook in this piece to briefly set out the reasons I see for the reactions I’ve seen.  Todays “Left” at times radically misunderstand humanity and what would really happen if their goals were met; but they at least profess to aim at a further realizing of equalities enshrined in American law and ideal.  The “Right” sometimes falls short of even professing those goals – but the white supremacists and related activists who provoked the clash in Charlottesville are attempting to project on us an ideal twisted in essence and refuted in our history by force of arms and law.  To find evil continuing should surprise no one with an honest appreciation of history – even without the Christian doctrine of depravity – but to excuse it out of fear we ourselves will be later libeled is heinous.  And to a real extent, excusing an evil now would only add to the weight of the charge later.  “I was afraid,” is much more pardonable than, “I meant to do badly,” but the results are all too often very similar.

Reviews: Unicorn Variations, The History of the Franks

In what will probably be the final review in my year-long project, I add in a couple different books – one a collection of short stories (science fiction and fantasy) and essays by Roger Zelazny, and one a quite antique book of European History.  It’s been a little bit interesting to have a reason to note what I’ve been reading: my chief discovery was how very much I actually re-read; the other thing I noticed was that I rarely seem to have fewer than three books in progress at a time – if nothing else, I’ll have a bit of light reading, a more serious work, and then some other book at school for downtime – and this is without considering any devotional reading.

Unicorn Variations

A major theme of this collection is foreign intelligences – alien, man-made, or mythological.  Other stories are perhaps better thought of as Zelazny’s thought experiments on sex and death – not that they don’t overlap.  Most stories are introduced briefly, and interspersed with the stories are some short essays on writing fiction (some specifically addressing science fiction).  Not all feature Zelazny as his best – in particular, the lead and titular story “Unicorn Variation” is somewhat meandering, perhaps a result of having too many ideas attempted in too few pages.  (Alternatively, because the actual story is, at the length it is told, fairly uninteresting.)

Although this has nothing to do with the collection as a whole, I did notice with some surprise that when I read the story “Home is the Hangman”, I recognized it – from the very first Zelazny I ran across, a novel of sorts (which someone else had brought along to round-up for a high school Shakespeare adaptation) called My Name is Legion.  Having taken a look, I found that Legion is a rather artificial construct – three short stories featuring the same character (perhaps originally only similar ones?) strung together.

The History of the Franks

Gregory of Tours’ work, on the other hand, is a fairly scholarly piece of business written in a popular tone – to the point I wondered whether the translator ( Lewis Thorpe) might not have overdone it a bit in places.  To go through it properly would take a good deal of time and some careful note-taking to keep all the names straight.  It’s an enjoyable read, not too long: Gregory takes a section to go through the entire history of the world (as he understood it) and then gets down to the rather gory business of the Frankish kingdoms’ politics and occasional ecclesiastical disputes.

The book produced a number of impressions, of which I will mention the most notable.  First, Gregory’s history covers quite a bit of his own time, and it is curious how self-effacing he is when dealing with political matters, especially when contrasted with his lengthy narratives of a few ecclesiastical or religious controversies.  Second, it serves as a useful reminder to be careful about our self-evaluations: despite the History being mainly one of chaos and civil war, at one point Gregory calmly declares how much better off the Franks have been than those heretical Arian Visigoths (the Spanish kingdoms), whose king had to put down a rebellion by his son.  Third, remarkable mainly because of the weather this year, for several years in a row Gregory notes that the Winter was much warmer than usual.

A curious fact is the number of things Gregory (or his later copyists) managed to get wrong, despite all his evident care – the most startling are his misnaming or misarranging of Biblical persons in his introduction (the translator suggests that he must have felt confident enough to work from memory), but evidently (judging from the footnotes) Gregory’s account does not entirely agree with other contemporary works as to the names or order of various dynasties.  However, those same footnotes also mention periodically – perhaps a dozen times – that one or another of Gregory’s sources has, sadly, since been lost.

An Example of Bad Teaching

This post, by way of a surprise, actually has nothing to do with any of my own various failures in the classroom or meditations upon improving future endeavors.

Instead, making the rounds of the conservative facebook-o-sphere today is this picture, allegedly from a “school textbook” entitled Is Everyone Equal?.  I say “allegedly” because a quick search on Amazon does not turn up that title, though the top hits are Is Everyone Really Equal? and Everyone Is Equal, one of which may be the culprit here.  Or the thing could possibly be a fraud.  Or this could be a draft edition of something still in progress.  I am saying this up front before we get to the problem.

The problem is that this textbook, assuming it exists, includes a blurb reading, “STOP: There is no such thing as reverse racism or reverse sexism (or the reverse of any form of oppression).  While women can be just as prejudiced as men, women cannot be “just as sexist as men” because they do not hold political, economic, and institutional power.”  There are several issues with this statement.  I want to focus on two: its various problems of linguistic inaccuracy, and its failure as an instructional tool.  I am not going to address the gross idiocy of only associating misbehavior with, and applying negative words to the behaviors of, the groups perceived as powerful.

First of all, this statement is not correct on a dictionary definition, in which “racism” is not generally connected to power.  For instance, “1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others. 2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.”  (American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd ed.)  The second definition does hint at the fact that racism as a practice is generally a fault of those in power, but to limit racism only to practice and ignore the underlying belief is a faulty approach.

Additionally, the explanation in the textbook fails as soon as a woman does in fact hold power.  Even if an “oppressed” minority might be unable to be racist on this view, Justice Sotomayer is now firmly “in power” – and so her opinion about a “wise Latina woman” suddenly becomes just as open, on this definition, to charges of racism as any politician who a century ago would have declared the opposite, that an Anglo-Saxon male with the rich tradition of English and Roman law clearly would make a wiser decision than an immigrant woman with only a normal life to draw on.

Finally, it fails a common sense test.  It is entirely true that in the American and European context, “racism” has acquired a connotation of being the attitude of the powerful towards the powerless.  But this being the case, “reverse racism” is an entirely reasonable description of prejudices the powerless may have – either latently or as a reaction – towards the powerful.  It would in fact be difficult to come up with a more exact term.

Almost more important than the semantic failure, however, is the educational one.  The student – or at least the reader, if this is not actually a textbook – is not asked to consider anything, but instead instructed that a particular line of thought is simply not allowed.  It is not even the failure of the reason for the prohibition that makes the prohibition objectionable.  Such an apparently random prohibition might be acceptable in a discipline with clearly defined rules: for instance, in mathematics the notation 0! ought by the normal definition of factorials to be undefined but is instead defined to be equal to 1, in defiance of all common sense and mostly to make a certain set of formulas work.  (It gets more complicated than that, though I cannot say I understand it on a level much beyond that.)  But in a subject where much is – even by plebeian judgment – uncertain and properly subject to light treading, and in academic circles widely considered subject to – well, much subjectivity, ruling out a line of thought (especially with bad reasons given) is surely to be frowned on.

Much better would be – even accepting the author’s apparent convictions for the sake or argument – an information box reading something like this: “It is also obviously possible for people without power to be prejudiced, especially against those they perceive as oppressors.  Some people refer to this sort of prejudice as ‘reverse racism’ or ‘reverse sexism’.  Does this seem like a reasonable label to you?  What are some of the problems it might create when talking about the subject?”